Donatello: five statues for the Campanile


Donatello has carved a total of five statues for the Campanile at Santa Maria del Fiore for the recesses on the north and east side. Each side of the Campanile had four recesses: sixteen in total. The recesses are quite narrow and deep. For good images, click here for Wikipedia. Some of the original statues can be seen here in the museum. It is clear that the ravages of time have created a patina layer. During the trecento, there were already some statues with the usual heavy scroll rolls in the recesses, including a Prophet of Andrea Pisano. Donatello, however, did not care about the already existing iconographic story of these statues. We discuss and view five statues of Donatello in chronological order: Prophet with beard (1415-1418), Prophet without beard or Prophet with scroll (1416-1420), Abraham and Isaac (1421), Jeremia (1423-1425) Habakkuk or Zuccone (1427-1435).

F.l.t.r: Prophet, Prophet David, Abraham and Isaac, Prophet with beard replicas

Campanile:statues Florence Giotto
Campanil Florence Giotto
photos: Helena


These statues can be seen at Web Gallery of Art. In his sculptures Donatello had to take into account the rather narrow recesses. Moreover, the recesses were set at a height of fifteen meters in the Campanile. These statues are thus five or six times as far away from the viewer as the John on the facade of the Duomo or the Mark at the Orsanmichele. If you want to convey something of a facial expression at such a height, you have to turn it on heavily. If you stand face to face with Donatello’s prophets in the museum, they have some caricatural traits, but this is not the case if you look at replicas at the Campanile. Not only the distance is crucial for the statues, but also the height, width and depth of the recesses. While Donatello’s Marcus had a length of 236 centimetres, he could not make his five prophets for the Campanile higher than 190 centimetres.

Donatello: Habakkuk (second left) Jeremiah (third left) replicas      In situ

Campanile:statues Florence
photo: Mahesh
Donatello 'Prophet with beard' statue
photos: Sailko

Donatello ‘Prophet with beard’      Before the restoration

The first carved statue for the Campanile was the Prophet with beard. As with the Marcus (Orsanmichele) which Donatello had made before this and which we will visit after this museum, he first made gesso or clay models on a 1:1 scale. Only then did the chisel come into play. The prophet is clearly immersed in thought. The hand under the chin and its slightly forward-curved position seem to emphasize the contemplations. The Florentines soon called the statue the Pensieroso, a title that Rodin centuries later gave to his famous figure in front of the Hell Gate. Donatello’s thinker’s gaze is downwards, but he doesn’t look.

Donatello ‘Prophet without beard’      Portrait

The second prophet Donatello made for the Campanile was the beardless prophet. A figure that looks a lot like the first one. In both sculptures, the artist has used a kind of geometric system. A strong vertical axis is present in the middle of both prophets. For example, from the nose of the beardless prophet, via the outstretched index finger and the folds underneath, a line runs to the centre of the drapery that protrudes over the pedestal.

The prophet without a beard (also called the prophet with the scroll) pierces the scroll with his finger and looks down admonishingly. Apparently the churchgoer, fifteen metres lower, needed some warning to keep to God’s word. Contemporaries were impressed by these statues. What struck them was that the faces were so lifelike: they seemed to be portraits.

Donatello 'Prophet without beard'  statue
photo: Sailko

For the first time, real individuals are being carved. Vasari even mentions two names for two of the five statues Donatello made for the Campanile. Two of them would be portraits (including the prophet Zuccone) of Francesco Soderini and one Giovanni di Baruccio Cherichini. This is not correct now, but Donatello certainly used models. He also studied Roman portraiture thoroughly. Donatello went to Rome with his friend Brunelleschi and, in addition to the necessary architecture, also looked at and studied classical sculpture, including portrait busts. In his book on sculpture, ‘De Statua’, Alberti distinguishes between two types of sculptors: ‘those who think they have done enough if their work resembles a human being, unfortunately a completely unknown person’, and those who strive not only to imitate and depict a human being, but a face and the entire appearance of an individual man, such as Caesar or Cato in his posture, his clothing, sitting or speaking in court, or another well-known human being.’ Here, the Renaissance demand clearly resounds: art must be as lifelike as possible.

The third statue of Donatello for the Campanile: Abraham and Isaac

Donatello 'Abraham and Isaac' statue
photos: Sailko

Donatello ‘Abraham and Isaac’      Isaac

In the commission for the two figures Abraham and Isaac, Donatello and Rosso (also known as Nanni di Bartolo) are mentioned and it is mentioned that ‘Abraham and Isaac’ were completed eight months after the commission. It should be evident that the narrow and relatively low alcove was an enormous limitation for a sculpture group with two figures. The two sculptors found the solution to this problem in two figures, placing one in front of the other. The so who must be sacrificed to prove his father’s love for God is depicted kneeling. Abraham’s right foot shows the wood for the burning of corpses; the same theme that was already submitted for the competition for the doors of the Baptistery. While Brunelleschi and Ghiberti made it very clear in 1401 which moment they had chosen in this Old Testament story, this is not the case with Donatello and Rosso. What about the relaxed face of the father? Has he heard from the angel that he does not have to kill his son? Here too, as with the first two statues, there is a central vertical axis. This midline runs from the protruding foot via the lower leg along Isaac’s shoulder, the hand and the folds to end at Abraham’s head. . Fortunately, in this museum you can take a closer look at the statues. According to Pope-Hennessy, an expert, some parts are very well done, but others are certainly not entirely up to par. The latter was of course made by Rosso or Nanni di Bartolo, whose work was far less qualitative. My question to you when you stand in front of this statue group will be: which part is beautifully carved and which part is not?

The fourth and fifth statue of Donatello for the Campanile: Jeremiah and Habakkuk

Donatello became a much sought-after sculptor and had difficulty coping with the work. Vasari writes about Donatello at the end of his Vita:

“There were so many of his works left behind in the world that one can safely say that no artist has ever made more than he has. After all, because he had fun in everything, he tackled it all, without considering whether it was something bad or something very valuable. All this activity of Donatello, resulting in statues of all kinds -free- and in half-, shallow – and flat-relief- was of the utmost importance for sculpting, because where in the good times of the ancient Greeks and Romans many hands had brought it to a state of perfection, in our time he restored it back to its perfect splendour with the multitude of his works.’ Translated from: Giorgio Vasari, ‘De levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione’ Contact, Amsterdam, 1990 Deel I, blz. 206 

Donatello ‘Jeremiah’

Donatello received so many commissions between 1434 and 1435 that at that time he started working with Michelozzo. When Donatello carved his Jeremiah, he had just cast his bronze and gilded holy Louis of Toulouse for the Orsanmichele. This statue will be seen when we visit the refectory of the monastery of Santa Croce. If you compare the two statues, bronze and marble, it becomes clear that the garment of Jeremiah is strongly influenced by the gilded garment of Saint Louis. The heavily set and deep folds create the illusion of volumes that actually have content and weight.
The starting point for Jeremiah was the beardless prophet. The body posture of the beardless prophet is mirrored in the fourth statue for the Campanile. However, in addition to this turnaround in the posture of the body, there are also remarkable differences: Jeremiah’s foot is left free, while the dress only covers the left shoulder. The neck really grows from the torso and not out of the clothing that covers the body. The Jeremiah is a nude figure and is largely covered by a heavy robe. The body and the drapery do not fit together as in his previous sculptures, but are rather antagonistic. A contrast that would reign supreme in the Baroque era, like in Bernini’s work.

Donatello ‘Jeremiah’ statue
Donatello ‘Jeremiah' detail Head

Donatello ‘Jeremiah’ detail’

The head of the beardless prophet is based on a study of life. Jeremiah is also based on a model, but is much more dramatic, almost rhetorical if you will. There is the protruding and almost pouting lower lip, the deeply incised cavities in the pupils, the frowning of eyebrows that continue over the nose. All this is not so much realistic, but it does have great emotional expressiveness. The clear geometric structure (a dominant middle axis at the front) of the three previous prophets has disappeared in Jeremiah. The cloak with its heavy and deep folds seems to lead a life of its own, detached from the body that covers it.

The surface is not polished so that the light is hardly reflected, that way more of the stone itself can be seen. If you look closely you can still find the drill holes in the folds, seen from the left side of the statue. As already mentioned, Jeremiah was carved just after Donatello had completed his Holy Louis. This statue is more drapery than body. The influence of Louis probably led to a change in the way marble was worked. Jeremiah is an emulation in marble of something that was previously only common for working with clay or wax.

The prophet is also an expression of what can be read in the Old Testament:

‘The word that came from the Lord to Jeremiah: Hear the words of this covenant and speak to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem and say to them: Thus saith the Lord, the God of Israel: Cursed be the man who does not hear the words of this covenant, which I commanded your fathers in the day I led them out of the land of Egypt, the furnace of iron.’ Jeremiah 11: 1-4

Jeremiah’s script in the left hand

The script in the left hand is not legible to the viewer, but it is legible to the prophet. If you look closely, you can see that Donatello does not fully comply with the commandment of the Renaissance: to reproduce nature faithfully. What is really wrong with Jeremiah and what could be the cause? If we stand in the museum Bargello and take a closer look at the marble and bronze David, we see similar mistakes by Donatello, but more about this later.

Dontello Jeremiah detail script in the left hand
photos: Sailko
Donatello 'Prophet Habakkuk'  statue
photo: Jastrow in situ: Dimitris Kamaras

Donatello ‘Prophet Habakkuk’       In situ replica

The last statue Donatello carved for the Campanile was the prophet Habakkuk. This prophet, looking at the people below him from his recess, comes across as less threatening than Jeremiah. One arm is naked and his right hand is in a loop that runs over the hip. The heavy mantle on the left side is a counterbalance to the somewhat fragile other side of the body.
If you think the cloak away, the body gets an unnatural length and the proportions are not right either. With a later Mannerist painter like Pontormo you see something similar, but this painter, unlike Donatello, does this very deliberately. It is a characteristic of Mannerism as we will see on the days of painting.


The large bald head of Habakkuk looks a lot like a pumpkin [It: zucca is pumpkin or dunce] hence the nickname Zuccone. The tendons in the neck run to the skull and are extremely realistic. The prophet’s lips are slightly open as if he were making his prophecy with an almost manic expression.

Seen from the ground, Zuccone is ‘the most impressive speaker’ of the two prophets. This statue owes its many anecdotes to this.

Vasari writes the following about the Habakkuk:
“Because this last sculpture was considered something very special, and more beautiful than anything he had ever made, Donatello used the following words if he wanted to be believed: By my faith in my Zuccone; and while he was working on this statue, he kept looking at it and then he said: Speak, speak anyway, or get the plague!” Translated from: Giorgio Vasari, ‘De levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giogione’ Contact, Amsterdam, 1990 Deel I, blz. 197 

Donatello 'Prophet Habakkuk' detail: Head
photos: George M.Groutas

Continuation Florence day 3: Donatello: ‘Penitent Mary Magdalene’